Improving Team Performance Through Knowsy

If you’re lucky, you’ll have the experience of working in a high-performing team early in your career. As you continue working, you will soon realize that high-performing teams are truly magical and rarer than you might have first expected. And if you keep working, you’ll find yourself becoming committed to creating high-performing teams. You won’t succeed every time, but you’ll try.

It’s a mission I’ve worked towards for most of my professional life, and in this post, I will explore how Knowsy®, our latest gaming platform, can improve the performance of teams by helping them reach alignment on a number of dimensions critical to high performance. I will focus specifically on Scrum Knowsy®, a version of Knowsy that was created in collaboration with several leading experts in the Scrum Community from Scrum Tide.


High Performing Teams Really Are Different

Let’s explore two teams comprised of people of roughly equal intelligence, experience, and motivation. Let’s stipulate that the teams have roughly equivalent domain knowledge — meaning, if they work in automobile insurance industry, they have roughly the same amount of knowledge on “how” the automobile insurance works. Finally, let’s grant the teams roughly equal levels of knowledge and experience in the tools they use in their job.

Even with all of these aspects of teams being equal, we know that there will be differences in team performance. Researchers have studied this for a long time, trying to identify differences in performance so that managers can improve the same.

One consistent result is that high performing teams align on a number of key dimensions. They share a core set of values in what kind of work matters and how it should be done. They agree on how the work should be distributed within the team and in who should tackle specific assignments. And even if they don’t realize the influence of organizational, community and societal culture, high-performing teams find ways to agree with each other on a host of important items, such as when they take a vacation or what kinds of training are appropriate for the team.

Much of these agreements occur naturally within teams over time, if the team has the opportunity to remain relatively stable for a long enough time. The team forms a collective mind, in which the interdependent actions of the team create an “a separate transactional memory system, complete with differentiated responsibility for remembering different portions of common experience” [Weick, 1993]. More plainly, we not only know that Jill is an excellent analyst, but we rely on our knowledge of Jill being an excellent analyst and begin to assign her tasks capitalizing on her skills. We remember the tasks that she has been given and rely on her memory when we need information about those tasks. A collective mind enables the team to become more effective in problem-solving precisely because each member of the team can rely on other members to provide experience and skills we do not possess as individuals [Hohmann 1997].

Of course, we don’t want to wait to see if a high-performing team will magically appear over time, because we also know that not every team jells, let alone becomes “high-performing.” And it can be frustrating to try and improve team performance when we know that we’re working in suboptimal structure. For example, while we’re told that teams perform best when they’re stable, macroeconomic conditions, such as a very fast growing company, or a very poor economy that causes a company to engage in workforce restructuring, might make keeping the same people on the team impossible. As a result, it is quite natural for all of us to seek to improve the performance of our teams.

Let’s explore further how games such as Knowsy® can help improve team performance.


Scrum and Software Development Roles

To engage in coordinated work, teams typically define a set of roles. At times these roles become captured and described in methods, which are prescriptive ways to guide problem-solving in teams.

Scrum is one of the world’s leading project management methods. Created and predominately used in the field of software development, Scrum defines a structured, yet flexible, the framework for accomplishing a wide variety of work. The Scrum Guide documents the Scrum framework and is maintained by Scrum’s creators, Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland, and can be found here.

When an organization or team chooses to adopt Scrum, they are also choosing to adopt the roles defined by Scrum. According to the Scrum Guide, the Scrum Team consists of a Product Owner, the Development Team, and a Scrum Master. Let’s briefly explore the Product Owner and the Scrum Master roles.

According to the Scrum Guide, “the Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product and the work of the Development Team. How this done may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and individuals.” “The Scrum Master is responsible for ensuring Scrum is understood and enacted. Scrum Masters do this by ensuring that the Scrum Team adheres to Scrum theory, practices and rules.”

The Scrum Guide contains a number of very explicit statements about certain responsibilities of these roles, while also promoting considerable flexibility in the application of the framework. For example, while the Scrum Product Owner is the “sole person responsible for the Product Backlog,” the Scrum Guide explicitly notes that there is any number of ways in which to express, order and verify backlog items.

Similarly, Scrum Development Teams, “consist of professionals who do the work of delivering a potentially releasable increment of ‘done’ product at the end of each Sprint” and are explicitly self-organizing. While this grants a team considerable power, it also means that teams must identify how they will work together as a team. I’ve written about this extensively in my first book, Journey of the Software Professional: A Sociology of Software Development, and I won’t cover this ground again, but instead, focus on how a team can focus on roles and use Knowsy to drive performance.


Internal and External Alignment on Roles

Scrum has been successfully applied across teams and organizations of varying sizes–from small startups of just a few developers sitting in one room to extremely large organizations with hundreds to thousands of developers distributed across continents. And while each of these teams have found a way to leverage Scrum to meet its needs, it is safe to assume that these teams have honored the advice in the Scrum Guide and that there are indeed marked differences in how specific teams have defined the role of the Product Owner or the Scrum Master.

Let’s defer, for now, the potentially contentious debate on whether or not a given team has defined the role of a Product Owner or a Scrum Master in a way that is congruent with Scrum (the dreaded “Scrumbut” debate), and instead focus on the degree to which a given team is in alignment with the roles they have described for their team.

I define two kinds of alignment: internal and external. Internal alignment means that each person on the team rank orders the responsibilities of a given role in exactly the same way. Meaning, when presented with the question: “What are the responsibilities of a Product Owner,” each member of the team will rank order these responsibilities in the same way. Similarly, if they rank order the responsibilities of their Scrum Owner in the same way, then we say that the team is internally aligned. You can think of alignment somewhat like “preferences” in foods – if you and I were to rank order our five favorite kinds of Dessert, then we could say that we were “internally” aligned on food choices.

Internal alignment alone is insufficient for team performance, precisely because the act of working together means that I must be able to make predictions as to the work that other members of the team are doing, in part because effective communication and work processes rely not only on actual behavior but also on the expectations of behavior created when the team agrees on an activity. Therefore, we define external alignment as the degree to which each member of a team can accurately predict how each other member of the team orders the responsibilities of a given role. Continuing with the food analogy, we can say that we externally aligned if I can predict your favorite Pizza toppings and you can predict my favorite Bagels.

Taken together, internal and external alignment provides a powerful tool for exploring and creating some of the accepted necessary conditions for high-performing teams.


The Power of Play: Determining Alignment Through Scrum Knowsy

Thus far, my discussion of roles and alignment has been anything but playful. Indeed, sitting down with members of your team to discuss everyone’s perspective on roles strikes me as a painfully boring meeting, at best. At worst, the team runs the risk of having a few strong and/or highly opinionated members of the team dominate the discussion, resulting in a less than accurate perspective. More likely, though, is that the discussion of how the team works, even in a team that strives for balanced discussion, is not likely to be very fun, and is likely to be overly influenced by whoever speaks first, regardless of their role.

So let’s make it a game!

Knowsy® is a simple, fun, and fast game in which the winner of the game is the person who knows the other players the best. Here is how it works:


  1. A game host assemble assembles a group of 4-10 players and initiates a game.
  2. Each player chooses a Topic. You can choose fun topics, like “Favorite Ice Cream” or “Favorite Movie Genre”, or work-related, and typically more serious topics, like “What Is Important in Scrum Sprint Planning?”
  3. Players then choose their top five items in the selected Topic and order them according to their preferences. We call these a “like list”, since it represents your likes.
  4. When a player has finished ranking their preferences, they then proceed to see how well they can predict the ordering of the other players. These are called “guess lists.”
  5. The game is finished when each player has guessed the like lists of the other players. The winner of the game is the person who could most accurately predict the preferences of the other players.


When you’re playing with your family, you don’t really care about internal alignment: The fact that my favorite flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is Phish Food® and that yours is Chunky Monkey is just a fun way for us to get to know each other. And the fact that my children can predict their sibling’s preferences on a host of issues more accurately than me (and often their mother, which a source of endless laughter) is just a fun way for my children to demonstrate their knowledge of each other.

However, when you’re at work, it really isn’t all that fun to work in a team in which everyone ascribes a different set of responsibilities to key roles and in which no one can predict the expectations of their coworkers.


Knowsy is the Test for Conceptual Integrity

More than 20 years ago, Elliot Soloway, my advisor at Michigan, told me to read The Mythical Man-Month [Brooks, 1995]. In this book, which I still consider the single greatest book ever written on software development, Brooks discusses at length the need for conceptual integrity.

Brooks is correct: We need conceptual integrity to create any product, and the need for conceptual integrity is not dependent on the size of the organization. It doesn’t matter if you have eight developers or 800: You will move faster if your team has conceptual integrity. Unfortunately, Brooks never described a means by which a team can “test” that it has developed a high-degree of conceptual integrity.

That’s always been a pretty big issue for me because a lack of conceptual integrity really does impair team performance. And while it is great to say that we need conceptual integrity, providing teams with no concrete means by which to achieve it is frustrating. I’m deeply pleased that Knowsy provides a means by which a team can formally test its degree of conceptual integrity related to its functional values. And by playing Knowsy frequently, teams can “improve their integrity score” and build some of the essential foundations for high-performance. (As an aside, stay tuned for a future release of Knowsy® that will gamify this process so that teams in organizations can have even more fun demonstrating their alignment!)

By formally testing, sharing and discussing the results of Knowsy® games, teams will explicitly reduce the degree of ambiguity and equivocality of the shared outcomes they seek to create. (For the vast majority of Scrum teams, this is working software.) Ambiguity means something can be understood in two or more ways. Equivocality refers to our degree of certainty over a shared meaning. To say a “thing” is unambiguous means each individual shares the same meaning associated with the “thing.” To say it is unequivocal means we have a high degree of certainty as to the meaning we share. When ambiguity or equivocality are high, performance is low.

Remarkably, low-performing teams often don’t realize that they are “low-performing” teams precisely because they don’t talk about their lack of alignment on roles, responsibilities, values, and goals. They inadvertently tolerate ambiguity, and, even when they manage to eradicate ambiguity, they do not operate with confidence. One of the greatest unheralded virtues of the Scrum framework is that the many meetings it prescribes work in concert to reduce ambiguity and equivocality. And With Scrum Knowsy®, your team can actually confirm, through play, that you’ve done this.


A Process for Improving Alignment

While playing Knowsy provides a team with a concrete test of conceptual integrity and can reveal their degree of alignment, it begs the question: “So what?”. In other words, what should a team be doing to improve their alignment on Scrum? And since a lack of alignment on functional roles, responsibilities, and processes suggests a lack of alignment on other aspects of work, what should teams do next?

Let’s break this up into the four quadrants of alignment that can be derived from Knowsy game data:

If you find yourself in the upper right – congratulations. Chances are good you’re a high-performing team. It is the other areas of the quadrant that require action – some much more than others.

  • We didn’t know we agree: This is likely to be an easy conversation with your team to identify why you weren’t able to accurately predict each others answers. Chances are good that you’ll find some mis-perceptions that will be easy to address.
  • This is a mess: Yeah, that’s strong language, but the reality is that your team is probably experiencing a boatload of problems. Take your Knowsy game results and sit down and take the time to talk through your differences. You might find that it is pretty easy to reach alignment. And you might find that you have some really fundamental disagreements about Scrum. While seeing your disagreements in black and white might be unsettling, it is the first step to having the conversations that produce the alignments you need.
  • We know we disagree: This could be the arena of your most challenging conversations: you know that you’re in disagreement, and Knowsy is merely revealing the undercurrent of the team. Good. Now you get to honor some of the values that you likely hold to be important, including such things as “No Hidden Agendas” at work.


The core step is that you need to work on getting into alignment. Talk. Play Innovation Games like the Vision Box variation of Product Box to build a common goal for the team. Refer to the Scrum Guide or other materials that you find as trusted references. Explore the advice of the Scrum Oracles contained within Scrum Knowsy (more on them, later). And then, after all, this is done, play more Scrum Knowsy – and prove to yourselves that you’re building alignment.

Now that you’ve achieved alignment on your functional values, you’re likely going to want to explore and reach alignment on other aspects of work, including team, division, product, or corporate goals; or, you might want to test alignment on the key initiatives associated with your corporate strategy; or, you might want to just have some fun and see how well aligned your team is on their favorite kind of food.

This is currently beyond the scope of the Scrum Knowsy offering, as Scrum Knowsy is presently focused on Scrum, and the Topics and Items within Scrum Knowsy are managed by ScrumTide. However, we can help you accomplish this broader goal through a custom-branded Knowsy for your company so that your entire organization can integrate the Topics and Items that are most relevant to you. Indeed, we’ve created branded Knowsies for several companies focused on using Knowsy to help their sales teams better understand customer priorities – see if you can find your company at And while these Knowsies help companies sell complex software solutions, we can help you target a Knowsy to help you build the alignment that leads to action.


Alignment Alone is Not Enough: The Value of Expertise

We use a Scrum-inspired development process here at The Innovation Games® Company. And I suspect some of my closest friends in the Scrum community would be able to point out a number of areas where we are not perfectly following the Scrum process

At one level, that’s OK: Our development team is very high-performing, as measured by its delivery of high-quality working software. We understand our roles, and how we’ve chosen to implement Scrum. We score pretty high on the alignment scale.

But, could we do better? Returning to a point I made earlier, it’s our collective responsibility as a team to see if we can improve our performance. For many technical components of team performance, this happens quite naturally as members of our development team scan the developer community to identify ways in which they can improve performance. For example, Dan, our CTO, recently shared with everyone several new approaches to scaling the server, while the Lucky Charms (hey, you know who you are :-)) showed off some very cool ways to show game results in a future release. And both will eventually get one of these approaches, as one has been added to the roadmap and the other to the backlog.

The situation is not necessarily as clear-cut for the “software” aspects of team performance. For example, even though we agree on the responsibilities of the Scrum Product Owner (“me”), as our company continues to grow in size we will need to formalize the role of the Scrum Master (currently, Dan). I am confident that we would benefit from the knowledge and expertise of others in the Scrum community as we make these changes.

This is the role of the Scrum Oracles, a select group of individuals whose suggested ordering of a topic is presented in the Scrum Knowsy results from the screen after the game is played. By comparing our choices with those of experts, we have the opportunity to consider differing opinions. We don’t have to agree with the Oracles, because while their advice may be sound, we may have very good reasons to have differences of opinions. Alternatively, seeing where our team differs from the opinions of experts gives us a chance to consider how we might experiment with our processes in order to improve our performance.


The Evolution of Knowsy

Over the next several months, we hope to continue to improve Scrum Knowsy and the Knowsy platform to provide even more ways in which teams can work together to improve their performance by creating alignment on those dimensions that are critical to their work. For example, we will be developing enhanced analytic tools for larger development organizations, so that companies with large numbers of distributed teams can finally have a tool that allows them to institutionalize the shared goal of high-performance through team alignment. Please [email_me emailid=””let us know[/email_me] if you’d like to participate in the development of these tools.


Thanks, Scrum Tide!

The creation of Scrum Knowsy has been a remarkable collaboration with Jim Coplien, Gertrud Bjornvig, Jens Oostergaard, and Yujie Liang. At times sloppy, and times magical, and always deeply satisfying and impactful, it has been a lot of fun. I’m hopeful that the larger Scrum and Agile Community finds tremendous value in Scrum Knowsy.

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